A few years ago, Jenni Murray was out walking with her son and dogs when she saw a potential vision of her future. While she was strolling painfully around the park, stopping to rest at benches where she could, a woman not much larger than Murray passed them on a mobility scooter, her own dogs leads attached to the handlebars. If Murray at 24 stone (152kg) didnt do something about her weight, her concerned son said, that might be her before long. How did she feel about herself at that point?
Extremely obese, she says. I was not the fit, active person that I wanted to be. I just lumbered everywhere. Id had breast cancer and a double hip replacement in my 50s, but it was the obesity that was going to kill me. It was the final push Murray needed, after a lifetime of dieting, and a warning from her doctor that she was on the way to developing type 2 diabetes. I thought, Ive got to do something about it, Im 64 and Im not going to make it to 70. She adds, triumph in her voice, And I did make it to 70! She reached the milestone birthday in May.
In 2014, Murray had bariatric surgery and lost eight stone in a year. The broadcaster has written about her lifelong attempts, and failures, to keep her weight to a healthier level in a new book, Fat Cow, Fat Chance. The punchy title was deliberate she says, on the phone from her home in London, with the washing machine whirring in the background. Her warm voice if you have listened to her for much of the 33 years she has been presenting Womans Hour on Radio 4 is perhaps as familiar to you as your mothers.
Ive been angry most of my life about having to deal with this weight problem, she says and about dealing with the fat-shaming that comes with it. When she went to a conference and heard a young doctor speaking, it was the moment the lightbulb goes on in your head. [He said:] Isnt it curious that so many things are included in hate crime, but whats the one thing thats not? Obesity. And I thought, God, the number of times when Ive been sitting in my car about to pull away at the lights, or Ive been out on my bike, or walking my dog, and some bloke its always a bloke just walked past and said: Fat cow. Or another C-word. So many of us will have had that expression thrown at us and yet nobody thinks its hateful. Fat-shaming should, she says, be classed as hate speech.
I want young women who are brave about their obesity to understand what its like in your 60s when you cant get around
Murray knows the narrative around people who have reached the stage of obesity. Were considered to be lazy, lacking in moral fibre, we eat too much, we dont exercise enough. Its so much more complicated and it just makes me so mad that the whole thing is so grossly misunderstood. Her book takes in research in genetics, our gut microbiome, hormones, the environment, the food industry and psychology. And how, once you reach a certain weight, the idea that you can simply eat less and move more and that you can be shamed into doing this is simply not true for a lot of people. I do call obesity a disease and were only now beginning to understand how wide the number of reasons are for it.
She thinks about her two obese grandmothers and a genetic propensity for weight gain that stretches back long before them, and the fraught relationship with her mother, who was both horrified that her daughter could become fat but also insistent that she always finish everything on her plate.
Murray grew up in Barnsley, the only child of Win, who had given up her job in the civil service once she became a mother, and Alvin, an electrical engineer. Food was central from the potatoes and raspberries grown on her grandfathers allotment to her grandmothers fry-up, cooked on an open fire, and her mothers apple pie. They had come out of wartime rationing, and suddenly, Oh my goodness, we can create pleasure again. Because thats the other important thing food is not just about sustenance, its about pleasure. My granny and my mother were suddenly in a position to make beautiful chocolate cakes, wonderful treacle sponge puddings, fantastic pies. It was an expression of their love. And, of course, to refuse it was an insult.
When Murray put on weight while at the University of Hull she was the first of her family to go to university, where she studied French and drama, with the ambition of becoming an actor her mother told her she looked like a baby elephant. Murray was determined that the next time she saw her mother, she would have lost weight. A university doctor prescribed pills, which turned out to be amphetamines. Her tutor, worried about her diminishing appearance and strange behaviour, intervened. She went from 11 to seven stone, mainly by eating one boiled egg and a tomato for every meal a diet she had read about in a magazine. I didnt feel good about myself, she says. I felt ill.
For a while her weight was fairly stable she joined the BBC in her 20s, first as a local radio assistant on BBC Bristol, then wangling her way in front of the microphone, and later becoming a presenter on Womans Hour, Radio 4s long-running programme, in 1987 (she was made a dame in 2011). But in the mid-90s, with her weight going up, she embarked on the eating regime that was popular then the Atkins diet.
You do it and you lose loads of weight and you think, Oh well, Ive done that, I can start eating normally again now, and you are ravenously hungry. What you dont understand when you go on a diet like that is your hormonal system is responding by sending messages to your brain saying, Whoa, shes losing too much weight, shes starving, make her eat. More diets followed, as well as trying antidepressants, CBT and therapy and there were the half-hearted attempts at the cabbage-soup diet, and the Atkins-like Dukan diet. Why did she keep falling for them? I have asked myself that question over and over again, she says with a laugh. You just think every time, Maybe this is the answer. Instead, the crash-dieting wreaked havoc on her metabolism.
Since she was her familys main earner, Murray would spend four days a week in London for work, while her husband David looked after their two sons in the countryside. Unhappy at being away from her family, while also trying to look after her two elderly parents, Murray lived on takeaways, microwaved ready meals and too much wine. She ate for comfort.
She writes that she tried to be happy with her shape but that her cheeriness was an Oscar-winning performance put on in public, but in private I lived with a growing sense of fear and misery. What does she make of the body-positive movement, where (mostly) women, sick of being criticised for their size, choose to celebrate it instead? I wish I could be completely supportive of them, because I hate fat-shaming, she says. But I know in the long run how dangerous being desperately obese can be. I want those young women who are very brave about their obesity to understand what its like when you get to your early 60s and you cant get around, and you get type 2 diabetes.
But she also writes that she wonders whether becoming fatter was an expression of her feminism and two fingers up to a society that expects women to be thin. It was an idea she got from the psychotherapist Susie Orbachs book, Fat Is a Feminist Issue, though she says now: I dont think in my case that was it, because I hated being fat.
Will thinness ever not be the goal for women? Instead of one physical ideal, she says she wishes we could get to a point where we accept that healthy body shapes can vary she likes to draw the parallel with her three chihuahuas, all different sizes. And she is scathing about the diet industry. I hate it, she says. Its caused me more misery than any other part of my life. Yes, some people will be successful on a strict diet, but it will become a daily obsession. They will somehow cope with hormones going up to the brain saying, Youre starving, youre hungry, eat, eat, eat.
It was after presenting Womans Hour one morning that she asked one of her guests, a doctor specialising in childhood obesity, what she could finally do about her weight. He suggested bariatric surgery, and recommended she see the surgeon and renowned diabetes researcher Francesco Rubino. The minute I met him, and I began to understand what the gastric sleeve would do for me, I couldnt get there fast enough, she says.
Rubino did not blame her for her size. I cant begin to tell you how my spirits were lifted by this warm, gentle, knowledgeable scientist telling me I was not greedy or lazy, but I had a problem with my metabolism, Murray writes. She says she knows some people will think she took the easy option, but bariatric surgery (Murray, like her surgeon, prefers to call it metabolic surgery) never sounded easy with 80% of her stomach removed, it is irreversible and will restrict what she can eat for the rest of her life. She says she was deeply excited at the thought that it might work in the way that I wanted it to but also absolutely terrified. For her, it was life-changing. I can eat whatever I like, but I only eat when Im hungry, which was certainly not the case in the past, and when Im full, I stop, she says.
Has it brought her peace with her body? Ill never have peace with my body, she shoots back with a laugh, as if its a ridiculous concept. Of course not. Am I happy with my body? I cant say that. Maybe Im just not a happy sort of person. I dont know. She doesnt want to lose any more weight, at least.
During this focus on looks, I ask what has disappointed her in terms of feminisms progress. I have so many friends who have daughters who are posting themselves up on Instagram or Twitter or wherever and want to look like She reaches for the words. Porn stars? Kardashians? I look at them and think, Come on, go and do your homework, for goodness sake. Im not sure if she means homework in an academic and career-minded sense, or the history of feminism probably both. In so many ways, we seem to have gone backwards and I can only blame social media for that. I get really sad when I see how much pain is caused by the way we look.
Many women dont really get what feminism is all about until they have their first baby, and then they get it big time
A few years ago, Murray was cheered by how fervently younger women had embraced feminism, but she sounds more downbeat now. I still think were at a stage where many women dont really get what feminism is all about until they have their first baby, and then they get it big time, she says.
As for the current divisions in feminism over transgender issues, Murray is not going there whenever the subject comes up on Womans Hour, as it did a couple of weeks ago in light of the row over JK Rowlings comments, Murray is conspicuously absent. In 2017, she wrote an article, calling for a debate about, among other things, trans womens access to single-sex spaces, which brought a wave of protest (and some support) and a warning about impartiality from the BBC. But with the fault lines so deep, where does feminism go from here? She speaks very carefully. There has to be, at some point, a sensible, thoughtful, considerate discussion about it so that people understand each other. We all need to be able to talk about these things. What I hate is the idea that debate is shut down.
Murray should have been going on a speaking tour to promote her book, but it had to be cancelled because of the pandemic. She remained in London during the lockdown and only recently met up with her husband, who lives in their house on the south coast, for the first time since March. Lockdown wasnt too bad, she says being an only child, and knowing how to entertain herself, had prepared her for it. There was a practice run recording Womans Hour from her kitchen table but it didnt work, and the BBC allowed her to keep going to the studio, she says, with a smile in her voice, even though she turned 70 during lockdown. Its hard to imagine her anywhere else. Retirement, she says, as far as Im concerned is an extremely dirty word.
Fat Cow, Fat Chance by Jenni Murray is published by Doubleday on 16 July (RRP 16.99). Buy a copy for 13.59 at guardianbookshop.com